BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Uruguay has become the first country in Latin America to offer full resettlement to Syrian refugees seeking safety from the civil war, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
Around half of a total of 120 Syrian refugees, of which more than 60 percent are children, are expected to leave refugee camps in Lebanon and arrive in Uruguay by the end of September. A second group will arrive early next year.
“We applaud the government of Uruguay for this important humanitarian gesture and encourage other countries to do the same. Without the help of the Uruguayan government, these Syrian refugees would never have been able to make the journey by their own means and resettle,” Michelle Alfaro, UNHCR’s senior regional protection officer told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from the Uruguayan capital Montevideo.
Five other countries in Latin America have taken in Syrian refugees, including Brazil, Argentina and Chile. However, the Uruguayan government is the only one to promise to coordinate the journey out of the Lebanese refugee camps, provide full refugee status and citizen rights to refugees, and offer them support in integrating and restarting their lives in the South America nation.
There are three million Syrian refugees, of which 1.7 million have fled to neighbouring Lebanon to seek safety, and an estimated 6.5 million people have been displaced inside Syria since the civil war started in March 2011, according to latest UNHCR figures.
Roughly half of those displaced are children and Syria’s refugee crisis, “has become the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era,” as described by Antonio Guterres, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees.
“It’s a crisis. Syrians are dying, suffering and risking their own lives in their search for a safe and new start to their lives,” UNHCR’s Alfaro said.
UNHCR officials working in refugee camps in Lebanon helped to select those Syrian refugees who would resettle in Uruguay. Priority was given to orphans who could come with at least one other relative, such as a sibling, grandparent, aunt or uncle and family members who could work in Uruguay’s agriculture and fishing sectors.
Initially children and their relatives will be housed in a shelter run by a Catholic group near the capital Montevideo. Along with food and housing, refugees will also be offered job opportunity workshops and training and Spanish lessons, UNHCR said.
In recent months UNHCR’s Guterres has urged countries in Europe and Latin America to take in Syrian refugees to help tackle the refugee crisis and take the strain off neighouring countries in the Middle East struggling to cope with the daily influx of Syrians fleeing from the fighting.
So far European countries have offered nearly 32,000 places for resettlement and other forms of admission for Syrian refugees. Brazil has granted humanitarian visas to around 4,200 Syrian refugees, according to UNHCR figures.
(Editing by Lisa Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org)